JUST over three months into the season, and when it comes to the North-East’s big three, Lee Johnson already finds himself as the last manager standing. Steve Bruce? Gone, dismissed after Amanda Staveley’s Saudi-backed consortium completed their takeover at Newcastle. Neil Warnock? Gone, jettisoned after the Middlesbrough hierarchy decided it was time to go in a different direction.

Johnson? Still in position. But as Sunderland prepare to return to action on Saturday after an international hiatus that was preceded by three league defeats and an FA Cup first-round exit at the hands of League Two opposition, there has been increased chatter about the possibility of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus opting for a managerial change of his own. Is Johnson at genuine risk of completing a North-East hat-trick?

Speak to those close to the key decision-makers at the Stadium of Light, and they will stress that the 40-year-old still has a reasonable amount of credit in the bank. Johnson, it is worth remembering, is Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman’s man. Speakman’s appointment as sporting director was confirmed in the same week that Johnson’s arrival as head coach was confirmed, and while it would be another month before Louis-Dreyfus formally replaced Stewart Donald, he was heavily involved in the recruitment process that followed Phil Parkinson’s departure.

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The trio have worked closely since then, with Johnson and Speakman forming an especially strong alliance. The shift towards a new identity has been a collegiate effort, hence there is an acceptance that if certain things have not gone to plan, responsibility should be shared.

Johnson has fully bought in to Speakman’s vision of a more youthful first team, adopting a possession-based, high-pressing style that can permeate through the various youth levels in the academy. The summer transfer window underlined the extent to which Johnson’s views and Speakman’s guiding philosophies were aligned, with the head coach encouraging the release of a batch of older players and the pursuit of younger, less experienced replacements.

Whereas some head coaches would have pushed for a more experienced core, mindful of the physical demands of League One, Johnson acknowledged the long-term benefits of adopting a more youth-orientated recruitment policy. Like Speakman, he accepted that Sunderland had spent too long lurching from one season to the next, plugging short-term holes but devoid of a more overarching plan. That has earned him a certain level of kudos within the boardroom.

Similarly, while results have dipped in the last month, there is also an acceptance that certain things have conspired against Johnson and his players. The Portsmouth defeat can be attributed, at least in part, to the horrendous conditions, while key refereeing decisions went against Sunderland when they lost at home to Charlton. The losses to Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday were more worrying, but no one in a position of power is going to be too concerned at exiting the FA Cup.

Heading into tomorrow’s home game with Ipswich, Sunderland are seventh, six points adrift of the top two. They do, however, have a game in hand on four of the six teams above them, and two games in hand on the other two. They remain reasonably well positioned.

And yet, the stirrings and rumours of the last fortnight reflect a mounting unease about the way in which the season is going on Johnson’s watch.

Part of the problem, in terms of Johnson’s job security, is that for all the talk of long-term planning and cultural revolution, the short-term aim remains clear-cut. If Sunderland do not secure promotion, the season will have been a failure. No ifs, no buts, no moaning about refereeing controversies or an opposition’s physical approach. Last season, having inherited a side that were sitting in ninth position when he took over, Johnson was afforded a free pass when the Black Cats lost in the play-offs and missed out on promotion. This season, there will be no such mitigation.

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The other problem, when it comes to an increasingly disgruntled fanbase, is that Sunderland have been here before. In fact, they’ve pretty much been here in every season since they careered into the third tier.

In Jack Ross’ first season, which ended in defeat in the play-off final, Sunderland hovered around the automatic-promotion places but were undone by a run of one win from seven games shortly after Christmas that was largely the result of teams that had worked out how to play against them. Fixture congestion in the second half of the season, caused by a lengthy cup run, was also a damaging factor.

The following campaign, which was cut short by Covid, saw Sunderland start sluggishly prior to Ross’ departure and fail to generate sufficient momentum under Parkinson to get into the mix. Again, there was a sense that teams knew how to outmuscle the Black Cats and create a sense of nervousness at the Stadium of Light.

Last term, the same themes were present. Fixture congestion, a pre-Christmas wobble that led to Parkinson’s departure, an inability to cope when under the cosh.

Increasingly, the current campaign is beginning to follow a familiar pattern, and that is why the weight of public opinion is threatening to turn against Johnson. Louis-Dreyfus will not be dictated to, but he must be aware of the festering disgruntlement and will not want the positivity generated in the early months of his reign to dissipate.

Saturday feels like an important afternoon. Win, and Sunderland will have drawn a line under their autumn slump and can look forward with optimism. Lose, and the likelihood of Johnson suffering a familiar North-East fate will have increased.